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November 11, 2002
By Nicholas Regush

Doctors Continue To Prescribe Dangerous And Addictive Sleep Drugs

Millions of patients each year tell their doctors that they canít sleep. Their insomnia may be due to the habitual downing of ten cups of coffee a day or to being a "regular" at Sallyís Bar. Or they may be so stressed out that counting sheep or thousand-dollar bills doesnít do it. Depression and other illnesses also cause sleepless nights.

The effects of insomnia can be wicked. Some individuals canít function properly on the job; others are strapped into an emotional roller coaster. Those deprived of sleep for longer than a month may even hallucinate.

Since the 1970s, more and more of these sleepless souls have been reaching for a sleeping pill known as a benzodiazepine or "benzo." These pills act on brain receptors and calm excitable nerve cells. But they can have serious side-effects, including dizziness, lightheadedness, coordination disorders, aggression, hostility, and concentration and memory problems. They can also be addictive, and sudden withdrawal can cause epileptic-like seizures.

Benzos are on the market because regulatory agencies believe their benefits outweigh their risks. But are consumers properly informed of the risks? Youíve got to be kidding. The regulators donít want people to lose sleep over it.

One thing is clear: Doctors prescribe sleeping pills like candy. They started to do so back in the 1970s with the arrival of the "benzos," and they seem to like to keep this habit intact. Itís apparently as addictive as a "benzo."

How many times does the medical profession need to be told that these drugs are not very effective in improving sleep. The science is there to read; so why donít these sleeping pill purveyors read it?

One reason is that people like their "benzos." Yes, the pills have been shown to cause next day problems - including the inability to do work properly and think clearly (because brain activity is reduced), and they also make people quite tired during the day. But "benzos" make a lot of people feel more tranquil. Thatís right. Tranquilized. That mushy feeling of gliding through life with little fear and trouble on the mind. Is this what sleeping pills are all about? Probably - and the doctors who dispense them grandly should know this by now.

Right, the matter of addiction. Dr. Feelgood, unfortunately often does not have enough working upstairs to notice that sleeping pills are not meant to be used for long periods of time; yet, more than half of users keep taking them until Hell freezes over. Good for you, Dr. Feelgood, we guess thatís what modern medicine refers to as "following patients."

These drugs are addictive, pure and simple. Withdrawal effects include such nice treats as panic, hyperactivity, rapid heart rate, seizures, and, oh, yes, even death.

Thatís a lot of risk for efficacy not worth a damn, particularly in patients with chronic insomnia.

As a health writer, Iíve been looking at this nightmarish problem for three decades, ever since the "benzos" hit the market and began replacing the more toxic barbiturates, which were used as early sleeping pills. While there are some new pharmacological twists these days - some therapies may not have quite as bad an effect as the "benzos," frankly, itís not worth writing home about.

Sleeping pills were prescribed dangerously back then and they are prescribed dangerously now.

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